‘SNL’: Heidi Gardner’s Kooky ‘Weekend Update’ Characters Make News

Brian Steinberg

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When extra laughs are required on “Weekend Update” these days, Bailey Gismert sometimes answers the call.

The ersatz teenager character, one of several popular figures played by “Saturday Night Live’s” Heidi Gardner, is supposed to review movies, but typically ends up insulting “Update” co-anchor Michael Che, rolling her eyes, and having an emotional breakdown. Audiences seem to love it.

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“Parents will come up to me and say, ‘How do you know my daughter?’” recounts Gardner, who is in third season with the NBC late-night mainstay – her first in the main cast. Sometimes, she says in a recent interview, parents even tell her they can’t watch her in the role, because the mercurial Gismert just seems too close to a teenage daughter or friend they know.

Heidi Gardner turns awkwardness into art each week on “SNL.”

She has gained traction on the show by playing funny-but-fragile characters on “Update” who initially seem bold and brazen but ultimately fall apart. There’s Angel, billed as “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Boxing Movie, Ever,” who vows in a thick Boston-like accent “I’m taking the kids to my sister’s!” There’s Baskin Johns, the employee from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, who quickly realizes she doesn’t know much about what she’s selling. Or Brie Bacardi, one half of a self-billed “Instagram couple” who seem constantly to be on the verge of breaking up.

Gardner says she’s not certain where the brittle and delicate feelings and quick-turn mood swings come from on stage, because she doesn’t see herself acting the same way in real life. “Oh my gosh, these characters are emotional. How am I doing that?” she asks. “Maybe I hold my emotions in a little too much. Maybe these characters are my way of letting it out in a weird, crazy way.”

Others have noticed the extra layers the 36-year-old brings to her work. An “SNL” character is usually simple and silly, but “she finds this depth that ends up being very compelling,” says Manny Basanese, a comedy writer and producer who has shown Gardner’s “SNL” clips to comedy-writing classes he teaches at Emerson College in Boston. “She’s not just being funny,” he says. “There’s a real actress at work here.”

If Gardner seems to know her way around an “SNL” favorite, she was less confident about her ability to do comedy when she was younger. “I was always so into ‘SNL’ growing up, so into comedy and movies,” she recalls. “Growing up in Missouri, I just didn’t ever see a path to any of that.” That didn’t keep her from trying to do funny things. “I would do characters for my parents. I would definitely improvise with my friends. I mean, God love them for just going along with it. My college roommate, she’d walk in the door and I’d be in a scene improvising. I didn’t know what it was. We were just messing around.”

Then she took a detour. She found she was good at cutting friends’ hair and decided to make a go of it. “I had a certain amount of shame around dropping out of college and doing hair, and I said ‘How do I make this sound better? – I’ll move to L.A. and do hair.’” She saved up $600 over one summer – “not much at all to move to L.A.” – and got work at a salon and developed a client list. “I was good at it, and I was just planning on that was my career.” She would work at the salon for nine years.

She found a way back to doing the characters and bits she once loved. A friend she made was in the improv-comedy group the Groundlings, a popular feeding ground for “Saturday Night Live,” and persuaded Gardner to come see her perform. She loved what she saw, and decided to start taking classes. She eventually rose through the group’s ranks and gained notice. “SNL” named her a featured player in 2017, at the start of its 43rd season.

She is part of a rising generation at “SNL” that is gradually getting more screen time – and not just on “Weekend Update.” As Kenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett move into veteran status, newer cast members like Gardner, Melissa Villasenor, Chris Redd and Ego Nwodim are getting more to do each week. Gardner has moved beyond the “Update” segments to making appearances across the show. Last week, she played an Icelandic mother-to-be opposite host Harry Styles in a sketch about a childbirth class that evoked the strange art dealers played by Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph in a series of sketches last decade.

Her move to the main cast is an accomplishment in itself. In a different era, most “SNL” featured players eventually were promoted (though there are always exceptions, as Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman can no doubt attest). In recent years, moving up has not been guaranteed, and “Saturday Night Live” has bid adieu to several freshmen, including Michaela Watkins, Jenny Slate, Jon Rudnitsky, Noel Wells and Brooks Whelan.

Gardner says she often locks into characters by envisioning new voices. “Typically, I will hear something on a reality show or just out in the world – someone’s roommate or you hear a different voice that sounds funny. I do feel people’s voices,” she explains. In other instances, she will dig deeper. “It’s sometimes about one word that will help you find, something that’s funny to say that you can build off of.”

The depressed Angel came after Gardner noticed the same female character cropping up in movies about boxing. Whether it was Rachel McAdams in “Southpaw” or Amy Adams in “The Fighter,” Gardner knew she was on to something. “They are always saying the same thing. They are always written the same way.” Gismert, developed with “SNL” writers Sudi Green and Fran Gillespie, is her current favorite. “It’s really fun to tap into that, and I have nieces that are really going through that phase. Everything you say is an eye roll.”

She hopes to keep growing on “SNL,” launching more characters. And she expresses admiration for the work of comedian Tim Heidecker. “He builds worlds around the characters he does,” she explains. “I love that idea of world building, and of these insane characters and premises and being really free. He’s doing TV shows. He’s going on live tours. It’s really funny and I just love that.”

Bailey Gismert might not feel so comfortable doing all that. Heidi Gardner clearly does.

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